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DALLAS — Dak Prescott needs no welcome-to-the-NFL game after five years in the league. But the Cowboys quarterback surely awaits a welcome-back treat when the newly paid, surgically repaired leader guides his team into Super Bowl champion territory.
The Cowboys’ schedule dangles tantalizing quarterback matchups and spaced out division foes, another SoFi Stadium home opener (the 2020 Rams and now 2021 Chargers) and a potential Dan Quinn revenge game.
Hopes will run high for a squad that was ravaged by injuries in head coach Mike McCarthy’s first season, when Dallas rotated four quarterbacks in five games and ultimately fell to 6-10.
TOP 10 GAMES: Cowboys' season opener among must-see contests
Here are three takeaways from the Cowboys’ 2021 schedule, a record prediction and the full order of opponents and dates:
1. Flashy opener
Cowboys first-round draft pick Micah Parsons last played organized football on Dec. 28, 2019. Can he and the remade Cowboys defense jell in time to wreak havoc in Tom Brady’s home Week 1? The country will tune in for a matchup of seven-time Super Bowl champion Brady and returning-from-injury Prescott in the 2021 NFL season opener. The game should feature two turbo-powered offenses, the Cowboys returning Pro Bowl offensive linemen and receivers Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and CeeDee Lamb. But Prescott must elude pass rushers Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul on an ankle he dislocated and compound fractured last Oct. 11. Prescott told USA TODAY Sports he's fully capable of movement already and expects to be 100% before September. Nonetheless, the Buccaneers won't rest in their defense of the league title. Meanwhile, McCarthy might want to study the opposite sideline carefully. Winning a Super Bowl is hard enough in a head coach’s first stop and still rarer in his second. Bucs head man Bruce Arians just won in his second post. McCarthy best take notes if he’s to recapture the Lombardi he hoisted 11 years ago in Green Bay.
2) Wherefore art thou, NFC East stadiums?
McCarthy tells his players nearly obsessively how they must play their best football in November and December. He wants them peaking late in the season, he insists. Their 2021 division hopes could hinge more heavily on that than usual. The Cowboys will complete 13 weeks of the 2021 NFL season before traveling to a division opponent. Their NFC East foes will await them in chilly winter weather, with visits to Washington (Dec. 12), the Giants (Dec. 19) and the Eagles (Jan. 9) maintaining suspense. Or will the division already boast a clear front-runner by then? The Cowboys last won the East in 2018, the Eagles and then Washington Football Team crowned most recently. The Washington defense is nasty and will be a divisional force for years to come. But no team has repeated in the NFC East since the Eagles in 2003-04. Can the Cowboys, who seem to enter the season with the most coveted quarterback, extend that trend?
3) Big money behind center
Technically, quarterbacks don’t face off in NFL games. But hype inevitably surrounds games featuring high-profile gunslingers, and the Cowboys hope Prescott’s first season on a megadeal will validate the worth they invested. Perhaps no game will test that mettle more than the Cowboys’ Nov. 21 visit to Kansas City. Prescott and quarterback Patrick Mahomes, owners of the two heftiest contracts in NFL history, are scheduled to compete in the same game for the first time in their careers. The game will mark the second in the Cowboys’ four-game, 19-day stretch that ends with a visit to New Orleans. By this time, no excuses will suffice for the Cowboys defense not to have their mojo intact. Dallas will hope the likes of pass rushers DeMarcus Lawrence, Parsons and Randy Gregory will be swarming Mahomes as the Buccaneers did in Super Bowl LV. The team will hope linebacker Leighton Vander Esch is healthy enough to ward off Chiefs All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce, cornerback Trevon Diggs developed enough to keep pace with speedy receiver Tyreek Hill. The task is tall, but McCarthy must prove he was worth the confidence owner Jerry Jones instilled when naming him head coach in January 2020. Games like this one will determine whether the Cowboys narrative spins to hot streak or hot seat.
The Cowboys will upset the Buccaneers before falling to rising star Justin Herbert and the Chargers. Three home games will spot Dallas a comfortable lead in the NFC East before Bill Belichick reminds them he’s perennially able to outcoach them. Early November brings respite for the Cowboys, who will keep their Kansas City visit a competitive shootout through three quarters before Patrick Mahomes reminds the league he is, indeed, still Patrick Mahomes. The Thanksgiving curse that often plagues the Cowboys will delight Raiders fans, victory in the cards for longtime Cowboys coordinator Rod Marinelli returning from Vegas. The key to an NFC East title will ultimately come down to those late-division games, which Dallas will split 2-1. It’s enough to send the Cowboys to the playoffs, where they’ll face the real question Jerry Jones and Co. want answered: Can this team finally end its 26-year NFC Championship drought?
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein
Sept. 9 - at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Thursday), 8:20 p.m. ET (NBC)
Sept. 19 - at Los Angeles Chargers, 4:25 p.m. ET (CBS)
Sept. 27 - Philadelphia Eagles (Monday), 8:15 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Oct. 3 - Carolina Panthers, 1 p.m. ET (FOX)
Oct. 10 - New York Giants, 4:25 p.m. ET (FOX)
Oct. 17 - at New England Patriots, 4:25 p.m. ET (CBS)
Oct. 31 - at Minnesota Vikings, 8:20 p.m. ET (NBC)
Nov. 7 - Denver Broncos, 1 p.m. ET (FOX)
Nov. 14 - Atlanta Falcons, 1 p.m. ET (FOX)
Nov. 21 - at Kansas City Chiefs, 4:25 p.m. ET (FOX)
Nov. 25 - Las Vegas Raiders (Thanksgiving), 4:30 p.m. ET (CBS)
Dec. 2 - at New Orleans Saints (Thursday), 8:20 p.m. ET (FOX/NFLN/Amazon)
Dec. 12 - at Washington Football Team, 1 p.m. ET (FOX)
Dec. 19 - at New York Giants 1 p.m. ET (FOX)
Dec. 26 - Washington Football Team, 8:20 p.m. ET (NBC)
Jan. 2 - Arizona Cardinals, 1 p.m. ET (FOX)
Jan. 9 - at Philadelphia Eagles, 1 p.m. ET (FOX)
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Dallas Cowboys 2021 schedule: 3 key takeaways, record prediction